Websites & mobile devices

It’s no secret that the number of smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices are soaring. It is estimated that there are over 3 billion (with a ‘b’) smartphones currently in use, and the numbers are growing rapidly. Mobile users now account for approximately 50% of all website traffic.

Does that mean that you need a separate, mobile optimized website? Well, kind of.

Why is a mobile website different?

As it turns out, most mobile phones are actually quite good at displaying traditional websites. With multi-touch zooming and virtual keyboards, most desktop websites will work fine. It’s just that they will be less convenient to operate than a website optimized for a small screen mobile device. The buttons may be too close, and you may have to spend too much time zooming in and out to create the best possible user experience. As a result, Google has been penalizing websites for the last few years that are not optimized for mobile devices.

Mobile websites typically use ‘hamburger’ menus (an icon with three horizontal lines) to access its menus. When you touch the menu icon, a stack of large and clunky vertically stacked links appear. The content itself is also stacked vertically rather than spread out horizontally over the desktop.

Responsive mobile websites

There are several approaches to creating a website that provides an optimal experience on both mobile and desktop devices. For a while, the favored approach was to generate a separate site for each type of device, but that turned out to be extraordinarily cumbersome, particularly when it came to site maintenance.

The preferred approach today for most web applications is a technology called ‘responsive design’. With this, a web page morphs in several important ways to optimize itself for the user’s viewing device. This includes changing the dimensions of the page, but also stacking content differently, replacing horizontal menus and drop-downs with hamburger menus, and even eliminating certain content for small-screened devices.

At the heart of creating an experience optimized for the user’s device is a long established technology called ‘browser sniffing’. Almost all web browsers provide the server (where web pages originate) with information about itself. Software on the server then uses this information to modify the website coding sent to the user to optimize it for the user’s device. Browser sniffing is used for both the older approach of delivering separate mobile-optimized pages, and the newer approach of responsive design, where the page changes to fit the device.

The mobile version of a website may offer less content than the corresponding desktop site, partly because some content doesn’t translate well to a mobile device, and partly because it may be hard for mobile users to deal with large volumes of content. It may also be costly to format all of the content of a larger site to a mobile-optimized format.

In some cases, the mobile version of a website will include a link somewhere near the bottom to navigate to the traditional site, for those users that would like to access the full desktop content through their phone.

Delivering content to mobile users via an app


Another approach to supporting mobile users via smartphones or tablets is to deliver content using a mobile app. An app can often provide a more functional and intimate user experience on a mobile device than a traditional website, but there are usually some drawbacks as well. In most cases where an organization offers a mobile app (Android and or iOS/Apple), they will also offer a traditional mobile or responsive website as an alternative, for users that do not wish to download and install their app.

For more information on mobile apps vs. websites, please view our article Mobile apps vs. mobile websites.